Election '97 : Parties keep tight rein on cyberspace debate

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The topic was Europe, the venue was the Internet, and the language was blunt. "Don't try to hide behind any posh sounding snot-nosed expressions, you pompous windbag," said the message. Phew. Was John Major using the information superhighway to finally get tough with the Euro-sceptics?

In fact, no. That was part of the unfettered debate that Internet users are carrying on about the election in discussion areas known as "newsgroups".

Even though politicians have been happy to talk about how important the global network of the Internet will be to our future economic development, they show great reluctance to get involved in the real cut-and-thrust with potential voters.

Just as on the streets, where soundbites and choreographed walkabouts rule the day, on the Internet the parties are stage-managing everything, and leaving nothing to chance.

Most of the parties fielding candidates in the general election - from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats through to Plaid Cymru, the Communist Party and Scottish Greens - are pushing their manifestos via Web sites on the global network.

But that is the static part of the network. Indeed, a quick tour suggests that, rather than offering a means for voters to bypass the media in the search for facts, the main parties see the Web as a low-cost extension of their advertising hoardings.

If you want a free manifesto, these are the places to go. If you want news and interpretation, they are emphatically not.

The Conservatives' site (at http://www.conservative-party.org.uk/), which claims to have 16,000 visitors per week - with about 80 per cent coming from the UK - actually echoes its physical adverts. The election, its front page declares, is "A Choice of Two Futures".

But despite every indication that internal opposition to the single currency is the topic most occupying the Tories (if not the voters), its only mention comes as the 25th of the Tories' 25 pledges - which appear in an animated sequence taking 10 seconds each.

You could sit watching the screen for four minutes without finding out what policy, if any, the Tories have on the matter. And as for the existence of Euro-sceptics - well, perish the thought.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, is claiming that its election site (at http://www. labourwin97.org.uk/) has received 1.25 million "hits" since its launch on 20 March - a splendidly misleading statistic, as one person's viewing of a page can generate hundreds of "hits" (which are requests by the user's computer to see a small file on the Labour site).

Judging by the structure of the Labour page, the total number of visitors is probably between 10 and 20 times lower than the number of hits - suggesting that it has had between 62,500 and 125,000 visitors.

This would be in line with the other two parties: the Liberal Democrats said that their site (http://www.libdems.org.uk/libdems/) has about 4,000 visitors daily, with 70 per cent of those coming from the UK.